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August 01, 2012, Wednesday

The AKP and the Alevi problem in Turkey

Last week, in the eastern Turkish province of Malatya, there was an unpleasant incident surrounding an Alevi family. As Today’s Zaman reported, “A quarrel between the members of an Alevi family and a Ramadan drummer that broke out has increased Sunni-Alevi tensions. Each morning during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, an hour-and-a-half before dawn, drummers tour the streets, hammering out a repetitive beat to wake people up to have their suhur (pre-dawn meal), after which those who are fasting must stop eating and drinking.

A quarrel began when members of the Alevi Evli family in the town of Sürgü spoke with Ramadan drummer Mustafa Evşi, who was touring their street, because they were disturbed by the noise. A group of Sunnis who witnessed the quarrel came together and began throwing stones at the Evli family’s house, allegedly chanting ‘God is great’ and asking them to leave town.” Alevis comprise about 10 percent of the Turkish population, and our history has witnessed several tensions between Alevi and Sunni groups. Some of these tensions were provoked by deep state elements and resulted in turmoil and bloody clashes. Turkey has to tackle this simmering problem.

It is firstly the duty of the majority Sunnis to deal with the problem. Previously, they could blame the Kemalists, who treated the Alevis with suspicion and mobilized some Sunnis’ prejudices and bigotry against the Alevis. As I have repeatedly written here before, the Kemalists employed the best citizen formula of LAST: Laicist, Atatürkist, Sunni, Turk. This formula categorically excludes Alevis, together with Kurds and practicing Muslims. But for the last 10 years, practicing Muslims have been ruling the country and pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) commentators have been claiming that the country has been normalized and that the Kemalist military is no longer a threat to democracy. Thus, Sunni-practicing Muslims cannot blame the Kemalists, militarists and so on for the ongoing problems of Alevis.

Before it came to power, the AKP portrayed itself as a defender of rights and liberties for all. After it came to power, it did indeed undertake several reforms to democratize the country, but most of these reforms were aimed at consolidating the AKP’s power. Whenever the AKP was tackled by the Kemalist oligarchy, the AKP acted very quickly and enacted laws to facilitate its own democratic powers. But when it comes to Kurdish and Alevi rights, the AKP has been very reluctant to take steps. In the old-AKP era, the government initiated an Alevi outreach scheme. The ministers responsible for the Religious Affairs Directorate took an active stance towards Alevi rights. With the help of the Alevi AKP deputies, the government organized several Alevi outreach meetings together with leaders of several Alevi groups. The ministry responsible for the Religious Affairs Directorate even published reports and findings of these meetings. Even though Alevis are composed of several groups and they do not agree on many issues, the reports show that there are some concrete steps that can be taken by the government. Officially recognizing the Alevi cemevis (Alevi houses of worship) is one of them. Similar to imams, the state could also pay the salaries of the Alevi clergy. The government can also make concrete moves to underline that Alevis are equal citizens in all respects and that their differences have to be respected. If the ministers are attending Sunni events, they must also attend Alevi events and so on. However, instead of taking steps in this direction in the new-AKP era, the AKP ministers started referring to the Kemalist revolutionary laws that prohibit places of worship other than mosques. When I label these acts as “Kemalo-Islamism,” people get upset, but what is this if not Kemalo-Islamism? These cemevis are already open, despite the defunct and already dead Kemalist revolutionary laws. Thus, instead of hiding behind the dead Kemalist laws, the AKP must fine-tune the laws with socio-legal reality. Take the cemevi case. If the AKP enacts a law which states that the cemevis are officially recognized, they will be equally treated with mosques and their prayer leaders will also get a salary from the state similar to imams. Who would object to this? AKP voters? I do not think so. The AKP has already enacted some laws such as football match-fixing laws against the wishes of its voters. The CHP? Of course not, almost all Alevis vote for the CHP, and many of its prominent figures including the leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, are Alevi. The Constitutional Court? Maybe. But is it not worth trying and then telling people that we have tried but such-and-such prevented more rights for Alevis?

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